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This is Spinal Tap
1984 - R - 82 Mins.
Director: Rob Reiner
Producer: Karen Murphy
Written By: Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer
Starring: Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean Harry Shearer, Billy Crystal, Fran Drescher and Bruno Kirby
Review by: John Ulmer
   
One of the funniest films of all time, and certainly one of the cleverest, "This is Spinal Tap" is as equally hysterical and subtle today as it was twenty years ago, back when Rob Reiner was pretty much known for his iconic role on the television show "All in the Family" -- not yet for "The Princess Bride," "When Harry Met Sally...", "A Few Good Men," and certainly not for being an excellent director. (Now, by 2004, his films have occupied many of the various AFI lists, including the best romance films and comedies.)

"This is Spinal Tap" was the first of its kind -- a so-called "rockumentary" following the dissipation of a terrible British hard rock band during the mid-80s, with songs like "Sex Farm" ample proof of their considerably awful talent.

Tons of bands like Spinal Tap were popular during the 1980s, then soon fell out of the public eye. Not many of them even had much talent at all -- just drugged-out band members and lots of rebellious attitudes as their primary advertising campaign.

Because Spinal Tap is so close to reality, and because it is so ridiculously ironic and yet far-fetched, it has achieved a massive army of fans and even a famed Criterion Collection DVD (now out of print, unfortunately). The film was never exactly a smash at the box office, but its popularity -- like so many famous films -- grew rapidly over the years since its release, having gradual re-releases (the sure-fire sign of a cult film) and lots of fake reunion concerts. (One of which was recently released onto a DVD.)

Legend has it that after the film was released in 1984, people often came up to Rob Reiner on the street and they would say, "I really liked your movie, but I wish you would have chosen a more popular band to do a film on."

Yes, Spinal Tap is absolutely false. It's not a real band. But it's hard to tell at times. Some people don't like the film because they find it too real -- but I think that's the whole idea.

As the film fades into focus, we are introduced to Marty DiBergi (Reiner), a documentary film maker who was drawn to Spinal Tap, the UK heavy metal rock band, early on in their career -- he admired their "loud" songs and now, at the height of their career, he is setting out to record their private lives that exist behind the stage.

The three main rockers are Nigel (Christopher Guest), David (Michael McKean), and Derek (Harry Shearer), who go around the world on rock tours, inspiring lots of loud noise amongst fans and upsetting a lot of people -- like the limo driver played by Bruno Kirby ("The Godfather Part II") in a pre-"When Harry Met Sally" cameo. (Billy Crystal also makes a cameo as a mime waiter in one of the most subtle scenes -- look quick, you might miss him.)

The cast performed all their own songs, as well as writing them. Guest, McKean and Shearer are all gifted musicians -- but they're also pretty funny. Part of what makes this film so effective on repeat viewings is that you're guaranteed to find some things you didn't notice last time. John Hughes once said that he liked to place small background quirks in his films (such as the crawling mice in "Planes, Trains and Automobiles") so that, on repeat viewings on television, someone watching might drift from the main focus of the film to the background of the sequence -- and there's the hidden gag that isn't even all that funny, just...different.

Your first viewing of "Spinal Tap" might be less than enthusastic. But I beg of you, watch it again, take a chance to open your ears more, pay attention to small things in the background, and listen to those songs the guys are singing. That's where much of the comedy lies. This is a film that is definitely worth owning for such purposes.

Speaking of hidden elements, much has been said -- or rather implied -- about the homosexuality of Nigel. When David's girlfriend joins them for the tour, his heart sinks because he loves him. I dunno, I've always thought it was because they were childhood friends and Nigel doesn't want anyone to take David away from him for friendship reasons. (Although the line "We're closer than brothers..." makes you wonder.)

This mockumentary formula has been re-created time and time again since "This is Spinal Tap," even in films such as "The Blair Witch Project." (There's no Blair Witch, folks. I should know; I used to live right outside of Maryland.)

But the mockumentary style has been mimicked particularly by Guest, who starred in -- and directed -- "Waiting for Guffman," "Best in Show," and most recently, 2003's "A Mighty Wind." Michael McKean and Harry Shearer returned for these entries, and I'm thinking that the next film should be a collaborative effort, and should reunite everyone from "Spinal Tap" for a 20-year anniversary -- Reiner, Guest, McKean, Shearer, the cast from Guest's mockumentaries, and perhaps even Crystal and Kirby, et al., in cameos. I'm sure more than a few people would go to see it. And, unlike so many other films, it is one that actually deserves a sequel. And probably one that would be just as funny as the first. And one that would have a purpose, other than being just another cash-in. Anyone interested in what happened to the band members twenty years after their downfall? I know I do.

But this is getting off the point, and the point is that none of these Guest mockumentaries -- as good as they are -- come close to the pure greatness of "This is Spinal Tap," and "A Mighty Wind" -- although funny -- started to show signs of formula aging. But "This is Spinal Tap" was, is, and always shall be, the granddaddy of the mockumentaries. It's the "Psycho" of mockumentaries, and actually a lot of "regular" comedies, too.
 
Movie Guru Rating
A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic.
  5 out of 5 stars

 
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